Travel review: Marrakech

Kasbah is a former mountain top castle originally owned by the lord of the valley.
Kasbah is a former mountain top castle originally owned by the lord of the valley.
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Whether it’s the serenity of a traditional riad courtyard or a mountain retreat, Adam Jacot de Boinod finds ways to relax amid the bustle of Marrakech.

“How can you pack buzzing activity and elegant serenity into four Moroccan nights?” I was about to discover. Two nights in Marrakech in the aesthetically pleasing interior of a riad combined with all the flavour and hassle of the markets followed by two nights exposed to the freshest of mountain air trekking through Northern Africa’s highest peaks. And just over three hours from London.

Riad Les Yeux Bleus, Marrakech.   PIC Alan Keohane/www.still-images.net

Riad Les Yeux Bleus, Marrakech. PIC Alan Keohane/www.still-images.net

Riads are small homes with open inner courtyards. Mine was delightful. Tucked away down three pink alleyways, my ‘Riad Les Yeux Bleus’ opened its solid door to a sensual and exotic feast. There was elegant Moroccan music, a fountain trickling, birds fluttering through open roofs between trees while bougainvillea leaves gently fell … all so uplifting. My senses were also awakened after half a British winter with the smell of jasmine tea and orange trees. Upstairs I got a rooftop view and managed to peek over the walls of the Medina (the Old Town).

Although my room was typically small it was stylish and like the others had its own take. It was relaxing and intimate with lights reflecting geometric shapes. Aesthetic without trying too hard. All so unimaginable from the streets. Calm before the storm of the outdoors to follow.

Renowned for its sheer magnetic exoticism is Jamma El Fna, the central square in the Medina. Here amongst the tourist tat are the legendary “storytellers” and snake charmers. Nearby are the Souks: bazaars with a hive of activity. The tanneries are truly pungent, but persevere and you come to other specialist stalls. Carpet salesmen promise to deliver by ship knowing how impractical their sale is. And that was before the haggling for my dirhams (the local currency worth about 14p). I enjoyed resurrecting my skills. I got some brilliant crystals down from 1300 each to 450 for a pair! They probably still “saw me coming”!

Then of course there are the tourist attractions, generally of appeal for their geometric artistry, demonstrated in early times at the Ben Youssef Medersa, a Quranic school and the Saadian Tombs. Close by I found the perfect spot for lunch at Les Jardins de la Medina offering delicious spaghetti and mix of traditional tagines, overlooking English tummies going red on their sun loungers and all jollied along by the live music of an engaging guitarist!

The alleyways are manic with bikes and mopeds making millimetre judgements on passing pedestrians. Despite the chaos, they are a modest and mild lot, distinct in complexion and countenance from the harsher Berber tribes of the mountains.

This gorgeous red city of terracotta and pink alters to the time of day and reaches warmer colours at dusk. Even the cranes were daubed in terracotta. How spoiling to see so many different varieties of cacti at the Jardin Majorelle, named after a French orientalist painter and acquired by Yves Saint Laurent. Here the gardens are aesthetically offset by the lemon yellow and striking cobalt blue fountains and water channels made from the purest of pigments. A visual delight with single shots of vivid colour. The spas at the top hotels of Royal Mansour and Mamounia added a visual feast of exoticism with pure white interior lattice work with shades and shapes coming through.

Time for a contrast. Some prefer to go to Essaouria, the lovely seaside town but I went to the mountains to stay in a Kasbah (a former mountain top castle originally owned by the lord of the valley). On arrival I reached the peak by mule.

My Kasbah, “Kasbah du Toubkal”, I discovered was about as high up as you could get. It’s a pit stop for the hiking community, an adult hostelry principally for an English clientele and perhaps in need of a feminine touch. Daniel Craig came here last year for three nights. Not a romantic hideaway, however, but functional and preferable to Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot nearby.

I could have gone with a muletier, who goads his “4x4” mules into further use. But I preferred simply to walk off after breakfast and make my own tracks. And I fell into a timeless world passing a goat man with his left arm in angular repose, devoted to his flock. Later, several gorges along on my sunlit morning, two youthful ladies reminded me of the third world austerity that has always been the lot of the Berber tribe as they laboured home with their hunched backloads of grass.

The sheer drops, the bald rock, the green vegetation, the sloping villages and the water-fed valleys: this varied landscape infused my imagination along with the freshest of mountain air. All enhanced at five times a day by the muezzin calling from his minaret echoing with the response of the neighbouring mosques across the valley. Bracing and aesthetic in one.